Is Josh Freeman the Buccaneers quarterback of the future?

USA TODAY Sports

Josh Freeman has had three mediocre games, and he's endured plenty of criticism because of it. With just one year remaining on his contract, should he be the Bucs' quarterback of the future?

Josh Freeman is inconsistent. This is no secret, of course. He nearly led the league in interception percentage in 2009, while leading the league in total turnovers in 2011. Yet in 2010 and 2012 he's kept the turnovers under control, while throwing for over 25 touchdowns. The inconsistency isn't limited to seasons: he has had four games throwing for fewer than six yards per attempt, but he's also managed three games passing for over 10 yards per attempt. He's had amazing games, dissecting secondaries and producing spectacular plays, and he's had awful games

That inconsistency even shows up in games: he'll go on streaks where he can't seem to hit the broad side of a barn, and then he'll hit Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams down the field, or lead the team to a well-orchestrated, 80-yard touchdown drive. The inconsistency is maddening, and may never go away. It prevents the Bucs from consistently sustaining drives through the air, forcing them to rely on the ground game as the foundation of their offense while using Freeman's big arm to rip off explosive plays.

For now, at least, it just is who he is: a quarterback with a big arm capable of making amazing plays at times, and equally capable of missing open receivers. He has one of the biggest arms in the NFL, and some of the throws he makes, other quarterbacks couldn't even attempt, like the game-tying touchdown to Vincent Jackson against the Carolina Panthers. His talent is undeniable -- but talent alone doesn't make you a great quarterback.

The Bucs must answer three questions to determine whether he can be their quarterback of the future.

Can Josh Freeman improve?

This question isn't easily answered. Freeman has certainly improved since his rookie seasons, yet there are still areas where he struggles, specifically in reading coverage and keeping his footwork consistent. At times he appears to shows progress, and then at other times you see the same bad tendencies show up once again.

This is not an easy question to answer, and I certainly can't answer it. On the one hand, this is his fourth year in the league and you would expect some consistency. On the other hand, he's just 24 -- almost of the same age as most rookie quarterbacks.

On the one hand, his lack of progress is a warning sign. On the other hand, he has progressed some, and quarterbacks in their fourth year in the league are almost never finished products. Eli Manning is my favorite example of this phenomenon, as the quarterback led the league in interceptions and threw for just 6.3 yards per attempt in his fourth seasons. And yet, he is now seen as one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL.

Yet Manning isn't the only one: Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco are both playing at a higher level this year than they were last year, their fourth in the league. Tom Brady didn't turn into a truly elite quarterback until his fifth season in the NFL. And then, of course, there's Steve Young, infamously dumped by the Bucs and turned into a Hall of Famer with San Francisco. Doug Williams is another one of those Culverhouse-era blunders, where a young quarterback was let go before he'd reached his full potential.

There's one thing we can say definitively: Freeman has all the talent in the world to turn into a top-notch quarterback, and walking away from him when he's still far from a finished prospect could turn out to be a disastrous decision. And if he does fail to succeed, it won't be because of his work ethic, which is consistently lauded as outstanding.

Is his current level of play good enough to reward with a big contract?

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers certainly have the cap space to reward him with a new contract, but his inconsistent play may prevent the Bucs from committing to him. Freeman has one year remaining on his contract, and he will carry a cap number of nearly $10 million next season. That won't be a big problem for the Bucs, who have plenty of cap space, but a big contract will come with bigger cap numbers in the future. And they will really have an issue if they have to use the franchise tag to keep him around in 2014, because that will get incredibly expensive.

Freeman's level of play is up for debate. He's near the top of the league in my favorite indicator of quarterback: yards per attempt, ranking seventh in the NFL. His completion percentage ranks near the bottom of the NFL -- though that is, in part, due to the design of the offense. Football Outsiders has him ranked 16th, as does ESPN's Total QBR.

So the solution would be to give Freeman a contract extension, but not make it super expensive. Because being 16th in the league doesn't warrant a massive contract, right?

Wrong.

Remember when Eli Manning became the richest quarterback in the NFL? He was 28 at the time (four years older than Freeman is right now) and coming off his best year - which still wasn't an elite year at the time. Sure, he had won a Super Bowl -- but Manning was basically Freeman at the time: inconsistent and saving his butt with some big plays. Still, he got a six-year $97.5 million extension in 2009.

Expect similar or even better numbers for Freeman. Sure, he won't get Peyton Manning money - but he could certainly get Michael Vick money. In fact, I'd look to Vick's 2011 contract as a model for what the Bucs may look to do -- remember that Vick was and is an inconsistent quarterback capable of huge plays as well. Vick signed a six-year, $100 million contract with $32.5 million guaranteed. In effect, though, it was a two-year, $32.5 million contract that was fully guaranteed, with a team option for $47.5 million over the next three years (the sixth year was essentially fake).

The Bucs have handed out similar contracts to Vincent Jackson, Carl Nicks, Davin Joseph and most of their recent signings: front-loaded contracts with guarantees that would allow them to cut ties after two or three years with no further penalties or obligations.

The question is: do the Bucs want to commit to Freeman for another two or three years at a high price point?

Can they reliably find a better quarterback?

Josh Freeman is far from perfect, but do you remember the mess of quarterbacks the Bucs were stuck with before? Do you remember the days when Luke McCown was a folk hero, people were pining for Chris Simms, Jeff Garcia seemed like a savior and Tim Rattay was a breath of fresh air?

I do, and I don't like them at all. And realistically, if the Bucs cut ties with Freeman without having a quality replacement, that's exactly where we're returning. It's easy to think the grass is greener on the other side, but it really isn't. You're certainly not going to find a good quarterback in free agency, so that means you have to draft a good quarterback. Some rookie quarterbacks may have made some people starry-eyed -- and even Nick Foles looked decent in one game -- but they're still rookies, and they have yet to do it for the long term.

More importantly, the list of draft busts is quite extensive too. Blaine Gabbert, Sam Bradford, Alex Smith, Christian Ponder, Ryan Tannehill, Chad Henne, Kevin Kolb, Mark Sanchez, Jake Locker -- none of those quarterbacks have been the saviors their teams envisioned them to be. Some of them may yet develop, but they're playing at a significantly lower level than Josh Freeman is.

That doesn't mean the Bucs can't draft a quarterback in the mid rounds to see if they can perhaps develop him, but you can't count on a third-rounder to be Russell Wilson any more than you can count on a sixth-rounder being Tom Brady. Finding quality quarterbacks beyond the first round is purely luck, and drafting them in the first round means passing up big talent at other positions, and it means creating a firestorm and quarterback controversy out of thin air.

Of course, quarterback is a unique position: if you have a good quarterback, you can win almost any game. And the new rookie wage scale has made it more attractive to spend draft picks on quarterbacks continually, in the hopes that you can bump into the right one.

The point is, though, that finding a good quarterback is difficult, and finding one who is better than Josh Freeman has proven impossible throughout basically the entire history of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers - and certainly not for a lack of trying.

Is Josh Freeman the quarterback of the future?

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers appear to think so, if we can believe the beat writers.

But what do you think?

That's this week's Gillette debate: can Josh Freeman be the quarterback of the future? Check out Gillette's facebook page for their debate of the week.

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